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Gov. Whitmer: Boost Michigan schools by $507 million, with more for neediest students

June 2019: Whitmer plan to boost funds for neediest K-12 students hits wall in Lansing​
Analysis: Whitmer's budget banks on Michigan GOP backing one historic tax hike
Related: Six big proposals in Gretchen Whitmer’s first Michigan budget

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s first budget recommends an additional half billion dollars for Michigan schools, including as much as a $180 boost in per-pupil funding and extra funds for low-income and special education children.

And the money may not be the biggest story.

Whitmer’s budget allocates money in what amounts to a “weighted” system, putting more dollars for students that experts say need them most, rather than Michigan’s current system of equal state funds for all students.

That’s a change that’s used in high-achieving states like Minnesota and fast-improving education states like Florida. It’s also a system that has been pushed by education advocacy groups and business and education consortiums that have studied ways to improve Michigan schools.

Whether the Democratic governor can sell her proposal - a 3.8 percent increase over the $13.1 billion now spent on public schools - to a Republican-dominated Legislature that may have other budget priorities remains to be seen.

Representatives for House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, say the legislative leaders have not yet been briefed on Whitmer’s budget proposal and will wait to comment until after Whitmer presents her full state budget on Tuesday.

Whitmer’s proposal includes:

  • $235 million more to the state’s foundation allowance. Under Michigan law, the state provides funding to public schools based on a per-pupil allotment. That would boost per-student funding to $8,051 per pupil for districts at school districts now receiving the minimum per-pupil allotment. That would be an increase of $180 per student.

At schools that now receive slightly more per student, the foundation allowance would increase to $8,529 per pupil (a $120 per pupil increase). Whitmer’s budget, as budgets by former Gov. Rick Snyder, attempts to decrease the gap between the highest and lowest funded districts.

  • $120 million to increase state reimbursement to school districts for special education services. That’s a 4 percent jump.
  • $102 million to increase state support for economically disadvantaged, academically at-risk students, a nearly 20 percent increase. Total state funding is recommended at $619 million for this group of students under Whitmer’s proposal, which will provide an estimated $894 per eligible pupil.
  • $50 million to provide additional career and technical education opportunities for students. That’s an estimated $487 per eligible student. The current spending: about $50 per student.

The budget briefing paper doesn’t address where the additional half billion dollars would come from, though that may be addressed in Tuesday’s full budget briefing.

The paper, released by the State Budget Office Monday in advance of the complete budget release, called the school funding proposal a first step toward a new funding model. Under Prop A, the bulk of K-12 funding is distributed to school districts under a per-pupil model. While there are slight variations in per-pupil funding between districts now, some other states fund students not by district but by need.

That’s because children from disadvantaged backgrounds often need more resources to catch up with other children. For example, low-income students often step into kindergarten classrooms already behind academically usually and require more services to catch up. Extra funding for low-income students also gives schools the opportunity to lower class size and hire more classroom aides.

“The investments included in the Executive Budget are the first step in implementing a weighted per-pupil funding system,” the budget briefing paper says. “Based on recommendations of the Michigan School Finance Research Collaborative, the state should set a goal of eventually providing a base per-pupil foundation amount of $9,590 for all pupils, with additional percentage weights for students who require higher cost services, including special education pupils, economically disadvantaged pupils, and career and technical education pupils.”

Under Whitmer’s proposed budget, special education students would get a 92 percent boost over the normal per-pupil allotment; low-income students would get an 11-percent boost, and career-tech students would get a 6 percent boost. Whitmer’s goal, according to the budget briefing paper, is to eventually provide a 35-percent boost over regular per-pupil funding for low-income students, and a 10-percent boost for career tech students.

The state currently reimburses districts for 28 percent of special education costs, according to the budget briefing paper. Districts are required by law to provide special education services, meaning that costs not covered from dedicated revenue sources must be paid from the district’s general operating budget.

Whitmer’s budget increases reimbursement by about 4 percent, with the hope that the extra funding will free up school-level funds for additional intervention and support staff for special education students.

The budget proposes a 6 percent boost over normal per-pupil funding for students enrolled in career tech programs. Career tech is seen as a way to address the skills gap in the state, and is seen as having bipartisan support. The programs typically cost more than traditional classes.

The budget appears to be a sign that the new Democratic governor will aggressively tackle Michigan’s K-12 school problems. Michigan students rank in the bottom third in the nation in achievement in many subjects and grades, according to the National Assessment of Educational Achievement.

A Michigan State University study found that as funding for schools fell, Michigan’s education rank among states plummeted.

“Research is clear – from the School Finance Research Collaborative to MSU’s recent study – that we can’t keep shortchanging our students and expect better results,” said Paula Herbart, president of the Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union.  

“That same research has shown that it doesn’t cost the same amount of money to educate every student, and this budget proposal reflects that reality.  Additional funding for at-risk, special education and career/technical education puts additional funds where they’re needed most to help all students achieve.”

A leading Michigan education advocacy group also praised the proposal.

“Gov. Whitmer’s commitment to investing much more in vulnerable students - including special education students - is a great step forward,” said Amber Arellano, executive director of Education Trust-Midwest, the Michigan-based research and advocacy group. “We applaud her proposed move toward a weighted student funding formula. These investments need to make equity a foremost priority…  Equity and improved effectiveness go hand-in-hand - and ultimately best serve Michigan’s vulnerable students.”

“Where I can commend her is that she is looking at the cost of each student,” said Rep. Aaron Miller, R-Sturgis, chairman of the House’s School Aid and Department of Education appropriations subcommittee, which will work on the state’s schools budget. “The better we can do at it, the much better we’re going to be at education, because any principal, any teacher, can tell you that … special education students will cost more.”

The challenge, he said, is in the math.

During her 2018 election campaign, Whitmer talked about shifting higher-education and community college funding out of the School Aid Fund into the general fund to free up more state taxpayer dollars for public K-12 schools. Miller said he supports having that discussion, but it also would create a hole in the state’s general fund for sustaining funding levels for higher education without having to make cuts.

Miller predicted Whitmer might try to take a gradual approach to phasing out the higher education money, which totals about $900 million this fiscal year.

“Doing it all in one budget would be impossible without a significant decrease to higher education,” Miller said. “And I don’t think she wants that.”

The size of Whitmer’s proposed per-student funding increase “will make a dramatic impact in a very positive way for our schools and our children,” said Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, a former middle and high school teacher.

Ananich, who said he expects to be briefed on the governor’s budget prior to Whitmer’s presentation on Tuesday, added that more funding for programs and services for special education students and career and technical education “makes total sense.”

“If we’re going to have a well-rounded education system and make sure we’re addressing the child, we have to make sure we address those things,” he said. “We’re way underfunding our (schools).”

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